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Matthew Montfort - 2008 - "Seven Serenades for Scalloped Fretboard Guitar"

(56:28, 'Ancient Future Records')


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TRACK LIST:   

1.  Gauri the Golden 8:46
2.  Sangria 6:05
3.  Soul Serenade 6:31
4.  Michelle’s Star 5:53
5.  Celtic Raga 8:48
6.  Purple Raga 6:01
7.  Lilalit 14:22

SOLO PILOT:

Matthew Montfort – scalloped fretboard guitar
With:
Alan Tower – didjeridu (1, 6)
Patti Weiss – violins (1, 2) 
Mariah Parker – santur (2)

Prolusion: Matthew MONTFORT is widely known above all as the founder and the main mastermind behind the renowned American world-fusion ensemble Ancient Future, while the star of this occasion is his latest solo output “Seven Serenades for Scalloped Fretboard Guitar”. I think I’d hardly be able to introduce you readers into the history of this release any better than the CD booklet itself, so let me please cite the corresponding lines from there: “As leader of the world-music group Ancient Future, Matthew Montfort has devoted himself to the SFG since 1978. In 1978, luthier Ervin Somogoi carved out the wood between the frets so that the pads of Matthew’s fingers touch only the strings, reducing friction while he bends them to produce ornaments more characteristic of the Sitar: while visually subtle, the difference in sound is striking. He spent years of study with some of the world’s best musicians, such as gamelan director KRT Wasitodipuro, North Indian sarod master Ali Akbar Khan and vina master KS Subramanian (VM: not to be confused with violinist Subramaniam), with whom he did an intensive study of South Indian note-bending techniques. He has performed concerts worldwide. He has worked with many world music legends, including tabla phenomenon Zakir Hussain and Chinese zither master Zhao Hui. While therefore Matthew Montfort has been known for his compositions, this first effort showcases improvisational music for scalloped fretboard guitar – that is.” Still in the booklet, each of the recording’s seven tracks-serenades is accompanied by Matthew’s own comments, though on the Ancient Future website, there is a page which contains a much more detailed description of each, and I was asked by Matthew to carefully familiarize myself with its contents before reviewing “Serenades”. For the first time I read those notes back in May, after which I’ve made quite a few attempts to start on writing what I had – and still have – to, but in the end I realized that it’s beyond my scope to review the album in a proper way or from the offered perspective, if you will. While feeling fairly confident when having a deal with most, if not all, of the styles that form the progressive rock genre and even with some of those beyond it (Classical and Avant-garde Academic music in particular), I am an ignoramus in many other musical and – especially – related aesthetics. For instance, before I read Matthew’s remarks on the fifth track I was completely unaware that there is any relationship between ancient Celtic and Vedic, i.e. Indian, musical traditions, let alone what a professional can create as a result of his passion for those and his knowledge of the peculiarities of each alike. All in all, when trying to professionally examine this release again and again, during the last few days in particular, I have quite exhausted myself and lost most of the ideas I had before I ventured on the matter, fearing now that my review of “Serenades” will be one of the least informative, i.e. worst, explorations I’ve ever done. In that way, well, I’m reaching a decision to quote Matthew’s, say, canonic description of the disc’s contents (here: its shorter, album, version) – before my apocryphal (at best) opinion of those.

Matthew's: Gauri the Golden: As an invocation to these serenades to my muses, this improvisation draws from North Indian raga, employing a tonal framework using notes common to both Rag Bhairav (associated with Shiva in Hindu mythology) and Rag Gauri (associated with Shiva's consort, Gauri). The didjeridu provides an intense drone bed while the guitar's plaintive calls and the violins soaring responses create a contemporary interpretation of the North Indian musical form known as alap – a rubato exploration of melody without rhythmic accompaniment. Sangria: Mariah Parker surprised me with this very beautiful piece in 7/8 she composed for this project. Captured fresh, the piece was new to me when we recorded it, so I was sight reading the melody and the rest of my part was improvised in the moment, inspired by her soulful composition in D minor. Soul Serenade: This improvisation in E minor captures the feeling of the initial emergency drive-by serenade that inspired this recording. Michelle’s Star: Written as a gift of longing, the recording equipment was turned on during the composition process, capturing the very moments this song in 5/8 was conceived. Celtic Raga: There are many parallels between ancient Celtic and Vedic traditions. For example, both Irish music and North Indian raga are modal and make use of drones and extensive ornamentation. Built improvisation in Irish music concentrates on changing the ornamentation of a set melody, while North Indian raga prescribes a set of conditions to create an improvised melody. This improvisation applies Indian melodic exploration techniques to a prominent scale used in Celtic music, commonly known as the Greek mixolydian mode, which corresponds to Khammaf that (pronounced 'tot') in the North Indian scale classification system. Purple Raga: An Indian raga is a melodic recipe for a mood: a 'super scale' using a set of notes in ascending and descending order, a hierarchy of note importance, and a key phrase that shows the heart of the movement of the raga. I was inspired to create a modern 'raga' based on the music of Jimi Hendrix after seeing a photograph of Jimi in the front row of an Indian music concert, his mouth agape in awe of what he was experiencing. Each raga has a patron god or goddess, which in this case has to be the god of rock guitar. So I serenaded to the spirit of Hendrix while improvising within the raga rules I created inspired by the guitar solo in Purple Haze. Underneath the didjeridu drones a chord in overtones: D7#9, also known as the "Jimi Hendrix chord”. Lilalit: This serenade for Lila falls within the scale of Rag Lalit, a raga often portrayed in ragamala paintings as a lover looking back as he departs from his sleeping beauty before sunrise.

Vitaly's: Of the three compositions that find Matthew playing along with side participants, Gauri the Golden, Purple Raga and Sangria, the first two are filled with Indian motifs. Not too dissimilar to Shakti musically, the disc opener is its most sonically saturated composition and comes across as a wonderful fairy-tale. When listening to it I sometimes had a mad thought that, although it belongs to a different style (which I see as chamber Jazz-Fusion), it would have probably sounded fine as part of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir. Combining jazzy and symphonic devices as well as Indian and European musical colorations, the presented, original, version of Mariah Parker’s Sangria has a good deal in common with the one that has given the title to her latest release, despite noticeably differing from that in both structure and sound. As to Purple Raga: “the Hendrix chord D7#9” (E7#9 would be more guitar-like?) is a perfect example of the insufficiency of jazz chordal terminology, allowing only odd numbers as it does. The chord is of course harmonically not a 'sharp ninth', but a 'flat tenth' – being the development of a centuries-old inclination on the part of mankind to combine major and minor on a single root. Stravinsky for example, speaking with some other composers, said "I can combine major and minor, but I must place the minor above the major" – which is basically what the Hendrix chord does. Interesting then, that in the 17th century and before, there are examples of the major being placed above the minor – seems sometimes almost as if we're going backwards (FM)! The other four compositions, Soul Serenade, Lilalit, Celtic Raga and Michelle’s Star, are all performed by Matthew alone, and the last of these, while featuring two guitar lines (one of which is certainly overdubbed), is the only instantly accessible creation here, appearing as a set of rock improvisations on a few fixed, rhythmically pronounced, themes which – be they played as riffs on electric guitar, via an overdrive unit – wouldn’t be out of place on a Jimi Hendrix recording, meaning hypothetically, of course. Celtic Raga, in turn, strikes for its high complexity and intensity alike and is full of fast, dizzily virtuosic solos, though on its folksy (with your permission) level, the piece only evokes what the first half of its title suggests, at least aurally. Matthew’s “Commonly known as the Greek mixolydian mode” could maybe be extended to include something like "although the mediaeval modes had nothing but name in common with their Ancient Greek counterparts”. Soul Serenade is strongly flavored with Indian motifs or, to be more precise, is much richer in those than in European ones. The same words are relevant to the first half of Lilalit, while the following contents of this long (14:22) track remind me of a rock piece for an acoustic, er scalloped fretboard guitar.

Conclusion: Overall, this is an excellent and, what’s especially notable, highly original release. Nevertheless I regret that almost two thirds of it only features Matthew’s performance. I doubt that his – very innovative – playing would have been less striking if Alan Tower and Patti Weiss had taken part in the recording of each of the tracks.

VM=Vitaly Menshikov: Agst 20, 2009
The Rating Room


Related Links:

Ancient Future


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